Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims Worship the Same God?

Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims Worship the Same God? December 1, 2012

Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims Worship the Same God?
Abingdon Press, 2012 (with Baruch Levine, Bruce Chilton, Vincent Cornell, and Martin Marty)

This book poses a question that each of the four main authors is obliged to immediately deconstruct and examine. The reason for this examination of the question is aptly introduced in the second essay by Jacob Neusner. From the a philosophical and logical standpoint the answer must be yes. But these are not religions constructed on the worship of a philosophical construct. They are based on distinct revelations that created distinct communities. Any answer to the question of whether they worship the same God must come from within these communities as they examine one another from the standpoint of their unique understanding of the Divine.

At the same time precisely the shared claim that there is but one God provides the ground and necessity of dialogue about that claim. As Neusner points out:

“Interfaith dialogue is made possible by monotheism, which defines the common ground on the foundations of which debate can take place. Polytheism defines dialogue out of existence, making provision, rather, for an exchange of opinions in a spirit of tolerance.”

This observation alone, and its implicit acceptance by all of the authors, makes this book worthwhile. Dialogue by definition is discourse about something held in common, a common interest or concern. Interfaith dialogue (as opposed to multi-faith dialogue) is about a particular faith held in common. Claims about the comprehensive structure of reality, which is to say metaphysical or theological claims, are what set faith as understood within monotheistic religions (i.e. faith in the one God who is One), apart from all other human affects or attitudes, including those identified as “faith” by polytheists.

Adherents of all religions, including those that are polytheistic, have much to discuss with one another. Yet from a monotheistic perspective inter-faith dialogue cannot help but begin with the claim that God is One, and there is only one God, and the demand for a specific kind of faith made by that specific claim.

Each of the authors of this book takes an essentially historical approach to demonstrate why the distinctive revelations, and communities formed by those revelations, agree on the claim, but do not agree on the meaning of this claim. This historical approach helps the reader begin to see that the issues of interfaith dialogue are not merely issues of theology and metaphysics, but of sociology and politics as well. The claim that God is one, and that there is only one God, not only has distinctive theological consequences, it creates distinctive understandings of human purpose in relation to other humans. It forms distinctive human communities whose boundaries are defined by a distinctive faith in God, even as each claims to possess the one true faith, as each possess the one true understanding of God.

Then given the historical reality that each religion really doesn’t accept the claims of the others to adequately represent the reality of God, each of the authors takes up, from his distinct perspective, the need for his respective religious tradition to adequately account for the others in light of contemporary realities. In short each concludes that dialogue must continue, and that each tradition must move beyond what has been received in order to fruitfully proceed. The past gives each tradition too limited a set of tools for evaluating the others. A fruitful future will require something more.

At the same time each rejects, rightly in my view, the replacement of distinctive creeds with what Cornell calls the higher metaphysics of Perennial Philosophy, or the “religion after religion” that demands no faith at all in the distinctively Jewish, Christian, or Muslim sense.  And while Cornell sees a resource in Sufism for comprehending the plurality of distinctive claims that God is One, he recognizes that this has never in Islam displaced the distinctive claim that the One God is the God perfectly revealed in no other religious tradition but Islam.

Thus, finally, each concludes that the question asked, “Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God?” isn’t a useful question apart from what can be learned from examining closely its presuppositions and dismantling them. As Chilton writes, “As an analytic category in the comparative study of religion and theology , “sameness” does not appear productive.”

Martin Marty’s epilogue places the apparently stark conclusions of each of these authors in the context of an apt characterization of the authors’ own forward looking programs. Although the question of sameness is a failed question, indeed a failed category around which to pursue interfaith dialogue, the realization of that failure has immense positive value for improving inter-religious relationships. Finding one’s self at a dead end can be quite a useful result of exploration. And if it is well marked, as it is by these authors, it can save others a great deal of time and energy.

But beyond this the road to that dead end may reveal values that endure beyond the mere failure to reach a goal. Civil conversation with one’s traveling companions, practiced and strengthened along the way, is ever useful. As is learning from others. (And surely very few readers will be such masters of the three religious traditions as to have failed to learn a great deal from this book.)  Discovering the actual complexities of interreligious relations instead of glossing over them with the facile feel-good frameworks for analysis characteristic of much interfaith dialogue is of first importance to any deeper conversation. And that conversation is legitimated by just the discovery of those complexities, and the genuine strangeness of each of us for the other, and thus the need for longer conversations.

Or as Chilton concludes, “God is one, and not the same, and believers need to acquire a taste for the fruits of difference.”

This book is one of the most important contributions to interfaith dialogue in the last two decades because it unflinchingly exposes from within each of the three religions the conflicts between them. It lays bear the false genealogies and shallow theologies that have too often formed the basis for dialogue (“We are all children of Abraham,” “We all worship the same God” ) and presses the reader to far more deeply recognize the implications of distinctiveness and difference.

Which is not to say that all readers will agree with the authors, or indeed Martin Marty’s conclusions. There will be those who embrace perennial philosophy, a religion beyond religions, or a functional polytheism or real atheism. Some will say that the fruits of difference are too bitter, even poisonous, for humankind to endure. And certainly such responses need to be explored. In the meantime, for those who dwell in, or simply acknowledge, that dialogue is as necessary as it is difficult this book brilliantly exposes a dead end, demonstrates that civility is possible in reaching it, and invites us to seek other more fruitful paths of conversation.

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